January 26th, 2011

‘Here We Are Now, Entertain Us’—Student Motivation and Technology

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George Stanton, a professor emeritus of biology, recently expressed his disappointment with student response to social media elements in classes. He pointed out that students were less than active in using the tools, meanwhile a recent survey of first-year students at his institution found that the number one expectation for class was “to be entertained.”

Teaching with Technology column

This reminded me of Michael Wesch’s comment that the young people’s anthem in the 90’s, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” contains the line “I feel stupid, and contagious, here we are now, entertain us.” Later the song has the line “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”

Wesch, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State, was lamenting the student apathy he finds today, which is especially disconcerting from a leader in educational innovation. If Wesch can feel discouraged by student apathy, where does that leave the rest of us?

I’ve found that social media projects do not always generate the kind of enthusiasm that I had hoped for in my classes. This might be partly due to the passive mentality ingrained into the educational experience. Students have been conditioned by years of schooling to be quiet and attentive in a classroom, and are scolded if they talk to one another. We would like to think that social media will immediately overcome this conditioning, but that’s not always the case. It can take time and effort to turn around this expectation.

Social media needs to be introduced within a context that will invite participation. While I don’t have a magic formula for generating participation, I do have some observations on what can help:

  • Motivate the participation: In our zeal to maximize the amount of content delivered, we tend not to spend enough time explaining the purpose of a class activity. Spending more time explaining the why of an activity will more than pay off in engagement and learning outcomes.
  • Remember, students have boundaries, even online: Activities that use Facebook tend to fail because students see it as their own thing outside of the classroom. In fact, students tend to view faculty who even look at their Facebook page as invading their privacy. It’s thus best to avoid Facebook and set up a social network on a system like Ning that students are not already using for their own purposes.
  • Find a student leader: Many students are hesitant to be the first to put themselves out there in an activity, but are happy to follow others. Try to get one or two students to participate first in order to set an example.

Social media can be a wonderful way to generate student engagement in learning, but still must be introduced in a way that will excite students to participate.

As usual, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage, but I am especially interested in hearing your ideas on how to generate student engagement in social media activities.

Resources
Michael Wesch’s great discussion of today’s students and how they collaborate in social media settings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09gR6VPVrpw

Dan Pink’s famous TED talk on motivation: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

Derek Silvers’ fun video on how to create a movement:
http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement.html

John Orlando, PhD, is the program director for the online Master of Science in Business Continuity Management and Master of Science in Information Assurance programs at Norwich University. John develops faculty training in online education and is available for consulting at jorlando@norwich.edu.